Immorality, Deceit, Idealism, and Achievement: The Perplexing Presidency of John F. Kennedy

When asked to rank the greatest occupants of the White House, Americans consistently place John F. Kennedy among the top five, if not the top two or three, presidents in American history. Professional historians, on the other hand, while recognizing Kennedy’s popularity, generally judge him to have been an above average president at best, but by no means comparable to the likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Why the gap in evaluation? In part it’s because historians recognize that while Jack Kennedy masterfully communicated to the public the image of a healthy, youthful, and brilliant family man, husband of the glamorous Jackie Kennedy, father of two, and master of foreign affairs, the reality was quite different.

To be sure, Kennedy masterfully handled the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the United States and the Soviet Union ever came to a catastrophic nuclear exchange, resisting the war-mongering of the Joint Chiefs while nevertheless convincing Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev that if the Russians did not withdraw their missiles from Cuba there would indeed be war. He exploited the capital earned from that successful showdown by engineering the first ever nuclear weapons agreement with the Soviet Union, a nuclear test ban that made future detente a genuine possibility. And had he not been assassinated fifty years ago in 1963, he almost certainly would have avoided the escalation of the Vietnam War that occurred under his successor Lyndon Johnson.

Photo: Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna, 1961

On the other hand, the president who founded the Peace Corps and launched the project that eventually put a man on the moon was in no small part responsible for the escalation of Cold War tensions in the first place. His scandalous botching of the invasion of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs fiasco significantly reduced America’s moral image in Latin America and in the broader world, giving the Soviet Union moral cover for its own aggressive subversion in third world countries and pushing Fidel Castro’s new regime into the open arms of the Russians. His sending of nearly 17,000 “advisers” to Vietnam set the stage for Johnson’s escalation of that war, and his encouragement of the South Vietnamese generals in their coup against South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem made him partially responsible for the brutal assassination of Diem only a few weeks before his own death from an assassin.

On the domestic front Kennedy was full of great ideas but he successfully enacted none of them. The first genuinely Keynesian president, he introduced the idea later associated with Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party that cutting taxes would actually increase revenue by bolstering the economy. He advocated health insurance for the elderly, federal funding for education, and a cabinet position for housing. He was much more encouraging of the civil rights movement than Eisenhower had been, eventually using his executive authority to ban discrimination in federal housing and calling for a civil rights law to protect African American voting rights.

On the other hand, Kennedy’s leadership on civil rights was nearly as indecisive, calculated, and cautious as had been that of Eisenhower before him, and Kennedy failed to persuade the Democratic controlled Congress to pass even one of his major initiatives. All of them would be enacted during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, the “Master of the Senate”, in 1964-1966 (though in part due to Johnson’s success in exploiting grief over Kennedy’s death). In fact, at Kennedy’s funeral the famous French general and statesman Charles De Gaulle apparently declared that while Kennedy was America’s mask, Johnson was the country’s real face.

Photo: Marilyn Monroe, only the most famous object of Kennedy’s obsessive womanizing, aborted what was probably Jack’s child, shortly before her death.

In his masterful biography of Kennedy Robert Dallek demonstrates just how successfully Kennedy worked to foster an image of health, morality, and honesty to cover a reality that was quite different. Throughout his life Kennedy’s body was wracked with near-debilitating ailments, pains, and degenerative diseases that were successfully kept from public view. Had he run for office a few decades later, he would never have been deemed eligible, let alone elected. The husband of Jackie Kennedy was an obsessive philanderer and womanizer, once declaring to the British Prime Minister that if he went without a woman for three days he got a headache. Not only did his womanizing get him tied up with the mafia, but it led to a near scandal when Kennedy became sexually involved with a young woman invited to nude pool parties at the White House, a woman suspected of being an East German spy. With help from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover Kennedy quashed a potential Senate investigation, while Attorney General Robert Kennedy had the young woman deported and paid off.

The deception, which was not unique to Kennedy’s administration but which was uniquely mastered by the man to whom the press was so friendly, extended to Kennedy’s handling of Vietnam. In contrast to presidents like Woodrow Wilson and FDR, Kennedy sought to minimize public awareness of U.S. involvement in a foreign war, fearing that democratic deliberation on the conflict would tie his presidential hands. He and Bobby Kennedy worked hard to arm twist the press into providing coverage cooperative to the administration’s aims, an abuse of the free press that helped to make it so cynical of later American presidential leadership and its handling of the Vietnam War.

Photo: Kennedy with his wife Jackie and daughter Caroline

Americans still love the Kennedys, especially the one who occupied the White House for those three years, deceptively described by Jackie Kennedy as the recreation of King Arthur’s Camelot. Yet the immorality and the idealism, the tragedies and the achievements highlight the age-old complexities of politics as it has always been conducted under the sun. God steers nations according to his mysterious will, using fallible instruments for his own purposes. In the final analysis, the country was probably in better shape when a rifle shot took the life of Jack Kennedy than it would be following the work of at least the next four occupants of that high office. Things aren’t always as they seem, and events rarely follow the course we might expect. That won’t change in the coming years.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on January 9, 2013, in Democratic Party, International Affairs, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Immorality, Deceit, Idealism, and Achievement: The Perplexing Presidency of John F. Kennedy.

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